The Lemont section of the I & M canal was dug initially by French and Irish men who were recruited from Canada, where jobs for unskilled laborers were scarce. Later they were joined by Irish and German immigrants. Irish men from certain regions of Ireland had a great deal of difficulty getting along with each other, and the Germans and Irish didn’t get along either. Quarrels were serious and frequent. Adding to the long days and hard labor, much of the Lemont section was dug through rock or swampland, and the men stood in water a good deal of the time, increasing the incidence of disease. They lived primarily in tents, dormitory style, and overcrowding and poor hygiene added to their difficult living and working conditions. The typical workday lasted fourteen hours.
Many of you know the rest of the story: the canal was finished in 1848; promises were broken as the contractors ran out of money. Canal workers were treated badly and paid not with money but with paper to buy cheap land; the population of Chicago, after the canal opened, jumped to 30,000 by 1850 and 110,000 by 1860, and Chicago became established as the major transportation hub of the United States; the canal workers left Lemont or took jobs in the quarries—oh, you didn’t know that part? Well, that’s a story for another time, but here’s a hint: the quarry workers weren’t treated any better than the canal workers were.
So here’s the final word on the I & M Canal. It led to the growth of Chicago, but as the population grew a serious problem developed: the waterways became polluted and disease, especially fear of cholera, became of great concern. Homes, farms, the stockyards, and other industries dumped waste into the Chicago River, which carried it out into Lake Michigan. The lake was the area’s source of drinking water. NOT GOOD.
Oh, mules pulled barges up and down the canal to the thriving canal ports, and enough water to float them was diverted into the canal. But the dry spells that affected the Des Plaines River also affected the canal, and waste management became a serious concern. The Chicago Sanitary District was created in 1889 to solve the problem.
Something had to be done…a better canal was needed to fix that, and it ultimately replaced the I & M Canal. The new canal was called the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal (by locals “the drainage ditch”) and it was a marvel of engineering. It reversed the flow of a river!
The I & M Canal did not officially close until 1933. Today remnants of it remain. Lemont has well developed walking and biking trails extending from its historical downtown area both east and west along the canal, which also travel past picturesque old quarries. The pictures above were taken there just this week. There are similar sections in other communities along the way, including a loop that can be accessed from Archer Avenue in the forest preserves east of Red Gate Woods and from Willowbrook. Walk them, or bike them. Or fish the quarries. You’ll enjoy it.